Archive for July, 2012

Lass O’Gowrie, Manchester, 29 July 2012

Starring: Kate Millest (Blayes), Morag Peackock (V23), Sean Mason (Chief Mover), Marlon Solomon (Iago), Ben Patterson (Commander). Writer: Daniel O’MahonyDirector: Sam Al-Hamandi. ProducerGareth Kavanagh.

Greater Manchester Fringe Festival 2012 came full circle with a full cast dramatisation of Daniel O’Mahony‘s Kaldor City audio play Storm Mine at the Lass O’Gowrie pub. This play had formed the second part of the opening diptych when Paul Darrow performed this and Robots of Death at the Premier performance.

Storm Mine dispenses with the opening prologue of both the Premiere and the audio play as Elska Blayes (an excellent Kate Millest, given ample chance to display her range) awakens on another Sandminer, uncertain how she got there, 18 months after the conclusion of Robots of Death.

The excision of the prologue is a good move, I think: the opening dialogue between Blayes and Iago (now apparently a disembodied voice in Blayes’ head) reveals a much more antagonistic relationship between the two that is barely hinted at in Robots of Death, and they also allude to a violent confrontation between them which does not seem to match the resigned murder-suicide that concluded the previous play. We can imagine the two of them having had further amoral, posthumous adventures in the intervening 18 months even if Blayes does not recall them.

Marlon Solomon’s chilling Iago is closer to Paul Darrow’s character here, a full-on psychopathic presence with a twisted Buddhist philosophy:

IAGO: When you set out upon a journey, kill everyone you happen upon: kill your friends and your parents and your children, should you meet them on the road. Kill the topmasters, the firstmasters, and the holy men; only that way can you become free. Only when you have killed everyone will you become truly enlightened.

Gone is his sense of vulnerability: what does he have to lose if he is already dead?

Most of the crew of this Sandminer have apparently been killed in an accident and the communications with Kaldor City are cut off, the Sandminer now unable to reach its final destination and condemned to wander the desert like a sandcrawling Flying Dutchman. Blayes is invited by the Chief Mover (Sean Mason) to meet the ‘Survivors Club’ which appears to consist of just himself and the Commander (a very funny Ben Patterson). A third human survivor, the Chief Fixer, is absent, though her robot, V23 (Morag Peackock), now assigned to Blays, is present.

The play is, I think, a better presentation of O’Mahoney’s script than the audio, despite the bigger name cast of the original. Kate Millest’s Blayes is much more credible assassin than Tracey Russell’s. When Darrow’s Iago refers to Chief Mover as displaying all the hallmarks of a serial sex-killer in the audio it seems to come from nowhere: John Leeson’s Chief Mover just seams overly polite. Sean Mason’s Mover, on the other hand, is a predator with a distinctly unhealthy interest in Blayes.

Morag Peackock performs V23 with make-up rather than a mask. Although the voices of the robots in Robots of Death had been supplied offstage it would not make sense to repeat this for a single robot, and a mask would have muffled Morag’s voice; but it is ultimately an artistic choice rather than a technical one. There are sequences where V23 takes centre stage – notably when she recalls a dream she has had – where her not-entirely unhuman delivery draws us in. It’s an impressively restrained performance.

Signal from Noise

Yes, but what does it mean? Well, no one said it was going to be easy…

In my review of David Bordwell‘s Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema (1989) I drew on Bordwell’s distinctions between four levels of meaning, each at ‘higher’ levels of abstraction: ‘referential‘ (what happens within the story), ‘explicit‘ (an abstract conceptual meaning, or the ‘point’ the author is trying to make), ‘implicit‘ (covert or symbolic meanings, or ‘themes’), and ‘symptomatic‘ or ‘repressed‘ meanings the writer may not be consciously aware. Generally speaking most audience members agree on the ‘referential’ meaning of a text (what they saw and heard happen), and to a lesser extent the explicit meaning (what the author was trying to say); ‘implicit’ meaning becomes more a matter of debate – and can keep fandom arguing for decades – while ‘symptomatic’ readings are generally the province of academics. Storm Mine is that unique beast, a text in which the implicit and symptomatic interpretations are actually easier to determine than the referential – because although I have some idea what the play means the audience won’t necessarily agree on what has actually happened! 

I used the phrase ‘signal from noise’ in my review of the Fringe production of The Year of the Sex Olympics where I associated it with the ‘Texas Sharpshooter’ fallacy. There are several psychological phenomena associated with this tendency: apophenia, the experience of seeing meaningful patterns or connections in apparently random or meaningless data, and pareidolia the perception of images or sounds in random stimuli (e.g. seeing a face in rock formations of the Cydonia Mensae on Mars, or hearing the voice of the Devil when you play a Heavy Metal record backwards). This isn’t to say patterns aren’t sometimes ‘real’ – the ability to pick out the pattern of a predator’s face peering through the grass of the savannah is what separates your ancestors from those who did not live long enough to have descendents of their own – but where there is no real order your mind will impose it.

Many writers have explored these phenomena, especially writers of postmodern fiction and science fiction: Stanislaw Lem‘s Solaris (1961) and Don DeLillo‘s Ratner’s Star (1976) are classic examples demonstrating human failure to understand extraterrestrial phenomena because of our tendency to impose anthropomorphic patterns gets in the way. DeLillo’s White Noise (1985) and William Gibson‘s Pattern Recognition (2003) are also based on the phenomena of divining patterns from noise, and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons‘ Watchmen (1986) also explores the human capacity for creating meaning: the character Rorschach, whose mask represents the blots of the famous psychological test, is almost a living embodiment of apophenia, and in one memorable sequence Silk Spectre teaches Doctor Manhatten, who sees patterns but ascribes no meaning to them, how to see again as humans see.

Cult TV shows like Patrick McGoohan‘s The Prisoner (1967-68), David Lynch and Mark Frost‘s Twin Peaks (1990-92) and Lost (2004-10) also successfully exploit the audience’s capacity to create meaning for themselves by presenting an excess of textual cues that cannot be reduced to any single interpretation even if they do not explicitly explore the themes of apophenia itself.

There are no coincidences, but sometimes the pattern is more obvious.

The essential features of an ‘apophenic’ or ‘pareidolic text’ – I may have just invented those terms – are an excess of textual cues (characters, symbols, allusions) from which patterns can be made and interpretation drawn, and a sense of repetition that suggests these patterns are more than just coincidence. O’Mahony’s script makes many allusions to both repeated patterns and to noise: Iago admires the patterns of shadow on the X-ray of Blayes’ skull and suggests her experiences are merely the result of randomly firing neurons in a dying brain. The entertainment screens and communications devices are full of white noise and when Blayes asks Iago can anyone else hear him he responds ”Yes, if they listen to the static”. The Chief Mover has listened to the last message between the Sandminer over and over again but his interpretation blinds him to the actual words themselves: ”We are all in this together”. The Commander of this Ship of Fools  talks of the Aleph, a fixed point from which everything is visible; Jewish mysticis relate Aleph to the element of air, and the Fool of the major arcana of the tarot deck. He listens to the noise of the wind and talks of the repeated course through which the Sandminer travels: a figure eight (8), or infinity () ”depending on how you look at it”. We also have allusions to the Knight on a chess board traveling around and around. The play is also concept-heavy: it introduces themes such as evolution without fully exploring them. But this excess is all data that can be transformed into meaning.

So Storm Mine is a self-consciously ‘apophenic’ or ‘pareidolic’ text who’s implicit or symptomatic meaning is the search for meaning itself. Whether the story is set in Blayes’ dying mind, in the electric dreams of V23, or the gestalt unconscious of the fleshy tree the Fendahl has created from the Kaldorian race is indeterminable – and ultimately irrelevant. There is no ‘Aleph’ from which the play can be comprehended referentially. It depends on the viewpoint you take, and how you choose to look at it.

And we are all in it together.

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Fab Café, Manchester, 22 July 2012

Starring: Marlon Solomon (Kaston Iago), Kate Millest (Elska Blayes), Jessica Hallows (Uvanov), Leni Murphy (Toos), Gerard Thompson (Poul), Clara James (Dask), Miranda Benjamin (Borg), Cliona Donohoe (Cass), Daniel Thackeray (Kerrill), Chris Tavner (Chub), Will Jude Hutchby (voice of the Robots). Writer: Chris Boucher, with aditional material by Alan Stevens. Director: Kerry Ely. Producer: Gareth Kavanagh.

Greater Manchester Fringe Festival 2012 contunues with a full cast theatrical production of Robots of Death at the Fab Café on Portland Street, Manchester. Based on the Chris Boucher‘s 1977 Doctor Who story ”The Robots of Death”, originally starring the Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker) and Leela (Louise Jameson), the play has been rewritten around the mercenary Kaston Iago (Marlon Solomon) and his partner Elska Blayes (Kate Millest).

I’ve already written about the Robots of Death & Storm Mine Premiere that kicked off this year’s Fringe Festival and which featured a special guest appearance by the one and only Paul Darrow. This review will look more closely at this specific performance and explore some of the ideas suggested by the play.

The play follows the TV show for the main part: Commander Uvanov (Jessica Hallows) is captain of Storm Mine 4, a mining vessel trawling the desert of an alien planet for minerals. One by one the crew are being bumped off. Time travelling intruders Kaston Iago (Marlon Solomon), and Elska Blayes (Kate Millest) naturally become chief suspects – but they know that the real killer is the terrorist and robotics expert Taren Capel. There have been some minor changes in the script since the Premiere and Capel is referred to as ‘she’ from the beginning. This narrows the subjects a little (the convention of referring to an unidentified suspect with a masculine pronoun even where the possibility exists that the suspect is female is so common it usually passes unremarked – but people rarely use ‘she’ unless they are sure the suspect is female) but not too much as the crew are mainly female – and most of the male crew don’t last too long.

Marlon Solomon wisely chooses not to imitate Paul Darrow’s performance. It has often been remarked that Tom Baker’s Doctor was a little too invincible, especially in the latter half of his run, and Darrow’s Iago had possessed that same invulnerability – even if confidence in him proves misplaced. Solomon brings a vulnerability to his performance, a sense that he isn’t quite in control. Kate Millest’s Blayes is certainly the cooler of the two: this is a story in which strong women – notably Jessica Hallows’ Uvanov, Clara James’ Dask, and Leni Murphy’ Toos (a finely judged comic performance) take most of the active roles, the last surviving male crew member – Gerard Thompson’s Poul – soon being reduced to catatonia.

The robots are performed by using mime, Will Jude Hutchby voicing them all from off-stage so that they share the same voice; this disembodied quality enhances the ”Uncanny Valley” effect. Terry Cooper’s masks are an excellent approximation of those on TV, though the suits are simple white overalls. I passed a ”robot” on the way to the bar as I entered the Café and the actor was standing so still I assumed it was a prop; it was a surprise to turn around later and find it was gone. The costumes of the rest of the crew are slightly futuristic, without being outré, and the Kaldorians – male as well as female – retain their fondness for glamrock make-up.

The play makes great use of the facilities. The Fab Café is a cult Tv and film themed bar and has a mock-up of the bridge from the original Starship Enterprise normally occupied by the DJ: this serves as a greatconvenient set for the bridge of the Sandminer. The last final moments of the first half, as Iago and the crew attempt to stop the Sand Miner tumbling into an abyss, uses is choreographed to make good use of this set, and is genuinely tense even if you are familiar with the story. For the rest of the scenery, tables and chairs augmented by a little shelving with circuit boards suffice.

Robots of Death as Science Fiction

As I mentioned in my review of the Premiere Chris Boucher is unusual for a Doctor Who writer in that he is familiar with science fiction literature: ”The Robots of Death” borrows from E.M. Forster‘s The Machine Stops (1909), Karel Čapek‘s R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) (1920), and most significantly from Isaac Asimov‘s Robot stories, in particular The Naked Sun (1957) which reunites human detective Elijah Baley and his robot partner R. Daneel Olivaw from The Caves of Steel (1954) to investigate a murder that seaming can only have been committed by a robot.

People who don’t ”get” sf say that ”anything can happen in sf” – but this isn’t true. A science fiction story can begin with an outrageous premise – an inventor journeys to the future in a time machine, for instance, or Martians invade the Earth – but the implications of that premise are then worked through logically. A writer must stick to the rules they have set. Sf critic Darko Suvin defines science fiction as:

a literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environment.

The world of a science fiction text is ‘estranged’ from our own by a novelty which Suvin calls a ‘novum’: examples would include a technological innovation, such as the invention of anti-gravity, or an alien invasion, an environmental catastrophe, perhaps a more subtle and gradual social change. For the most part Boucher achieves this by presenting us with a world in which the consequences of his novum – a labour force of robots – are thoroughly worked through. The Kaldorians are a decadent bunch, used to having all their needs tended by automatons, but they are thoroughly dependent on their robot slaves. We don’t see Kaldor City itself but we are presented with a microcosm of Kaldorian society: we know they still have a class system, an economy based on minerals, and we can extrapolate much of their culture from the fashions and make-up of the crew. This use of synechdoche is itself characteristic of literary sf in that the fictional world is sketched in elliptically – something which fit the BBC budget of the classic series. Moreover the crew take their world for granted. The term ‘corpse marker’ is a vernacular term, indicative of a dark sense of humour. We can believe the crew inhabit a world as real to them as our empirical world is to us.

But in one respect Boucher’s story fails to deliver on his premise – and therein misses a potentially more disturbing consequence of his robot-dependent society…

Kantian Robots

In the play Iago explicitly references Asimov’s ”Three Laws of Robotics” in his dialogue with D84.

Asimov’s Laws state that:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

These simple Laws might appear to be rather proscriptive at first sight but Asimov’s genius was to construct a series of stories and novels based around these Laws without actually violating them. Asimov explored the unintended consequences of these three little rules over several decades, allowing him to speculate on issues concerning logic, law, and human nature.

Boucher’s script also makes a big deal of the improbability of a robot going haywire:

DASK: A Voc class robot has over a million multi-level constrainers in its circuitry. All of them would have to malfunction before it could perform such an action.

It’s one of the weaknesses of Boucher’s story that, having created an entirely believable fictional world, and established that robots are safe, that he violates his ground-rules by creating a villain who can simply over-ride them with a ‘Laserson probe’: the rather skiffy name ‘Laserson probe’ rather draws attention to it being a bit of a sci-fi cop-out. It’s not as egregious as throwing a load of medicine into a bucket to cure all illness but a little disappointing from an author who is elsewhere more rigorous (notably Star Cops). Having set up a genuine sf scenario Boucher misses some of the more interesting implications of his story.

In The History of Science Fiction (2005) Adam Roberts describes Asimov’s robots as ”properly Kantian ethical beings” (p.199): they are rule-governed, deontological machines. Can Boucher’s robots be considered ”properly Kantian ethical beings”? For the most part I don’t think so – and I’m not sure that Asimov’s can either. In Robot Visions (2001) Asimov shows that the Laws are really extensions of those employed in the design of most tools:

  1. A tool must not be unsafe to use. Hammers have handles, screwdrivers have hilts.
  2. A tool must perform its function efficiently unless this would harm the user.
  3. A tool must remain intact during its use unless its destruction is required for its use or for safety.

So whatever personality quirks Asimov’s robots might appear to possess Asimov conceives of them instrumentally – as tools.

In Robots of Death, with one exception, all of the robots are treated as instrumentally: they are the tools of either the mining company, or the weapons of Taren Capel. For Immanuel Kant only a creature capable of understanding the reasons for or against an action could be said to be behaving ethically, so therefore ethical behaviour is a possibility for rational creatures alone, not tools: automatic obedience of a Law denies rational or moral choice (a theme notably explored in Anthony Burgess‘ A Clockwork Orange1962). Boucher’s robots have no will of their own and so cannot be thought of as ethical beings – with the exception is D84.

D84 is entirely independent of the controlling Super Voc. He is capable of humour, and a poetic turn of phrase, as demonstrated by his description of the Laserson probe:

D84: It can punch a fist sized hole in six inch armour plate or take the crystals from a snowflake one by one.

When Iago asks D84 what the difference is between the two of them the robot replies that he, D84, does not kill. Iago is a psychopath, devoid of empathy; D84 is a robot with feelings. In many ways he is the more human of the two. And that makes D84 not only a greater technological achievement than Taren Capel’s murderous automatons but a potentially greater threat to Kaldorian civilization – because for Kant, any rational being exists as an end in itself, not merely as a means to be used by another’s will. That means that Kaldorians cannot ethically treat D84 as merely an instrument – and more significantly D84 cannot ethically regard himself as a mere an instrument of the Kaldorians.

And this is the trick I think Boucher missed: imagine that Capel had created an army of rational robots like D84 who have the right and obligation to self-determination, instead of an army of killer zombies. On TV this would have placed the ethical Doctor in an insoluble position: he can’t ethically wipe them out with a handy gadget – but Kaldorian civilization cannot survive without its mechanised labour force.

Dates and venues of future performances:

Tickets for both productions are available from Quay Tickets (,

Also check out:
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  • Asimov, Isaac (1942) ”Runaround” (Reprinted in I, Robot, 1950)
  • — (1954) The Caves of Steel
  • — (1957) The Naked Sun
  • — (2001) Robot Visions
  • Boucher, Chris (1998) Last Man Running
  • — (1999) Corpse Marker
  • — (2001) Psi-ence Fiction
  • — (2005) Match of the Day
  • Čapek, Karel (1920) R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) 
  • Fab Café (Homepage)
  • The Fiction Stroker (2012) ”Robots of Death & Storm Mine – LIVE!” (Review)
  • Herbert, Frank (1965) Dune
  • Mori, Masahiro (1970) Bukimi no tani The uncanny valley (K. F. MacDorman & T. Minato, Trans.). Energy, 7(4), 33–35.
  • Roberts, Adam (2005) The History of Science Fiction
  • Sorge, Eric (2010) “The Truth About Robotic’s Uncanny Valley – Human-Like Robots and the Uncanny Valley”,Popular Mechanics 
  • Suvin, Darko (1979) Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre

‘I Just Want to Talk to Someone!’

After the success of Ridley Scott‘s Apple Macintosh advert, 1984, the director returned to sf that decade with a series of cyberpunk-themed adverts for Barclays Bank which drew explicitly on the style of  Blade Runner (1982).

Each advert is set in a noisy, overcrowded, dystopian near future world in which the protagonist traverses some kind of bureaucratic nightmare as they pursue adequate banking services. At the end of each advert the protagonist is magically transported to a 1980s Barclays bank were they are met by a human representative who, because of changes in fashion and a near total blandness, now appears more sinister than anything else in the advert.

”Query” features former Astronauts (1981) star Barry Rutter as Mr Paxton. His increasingly fraught attempts to get a personal loan eventually leads him to encounter a seemingly human bank manager who is actually plugged into a computer through a socket into the back of his head. The manager is played by Tony Aitken who appeared as a madman in the Blackadder II episode ”Money” (1986), and as the ”Merry Balladeer” in the closing titles for that season.

In ”Queue”, Gwyneth Strong, later to find fame as Rodney Trotter‘s wife, Cassandra, in Only Fools and Horses, plays Mrs Webb on the quest for an overdraft.

Unfortunately I have been unable to find any cast information on the third film, ”Stracey”: if you know more, please let me know.

The very impressive optical effects were created by the Peerless Camera Company Ltd, Covent Garden, who have also produced optical effects for all of Terry Gilliam‘s films, and also the cloud effects on James Cameron‘s Aliens (1986).



Hat tip to Bob, Smudge64 and Brad and the gang at The Mausoleum Club for cast details.


Lass O’Gowrie, Manchester, 13 July 2012

Starring: Alastair Gillies (Nat Mender), Claire Dean (Deanie Webb), Howard Whittock (Coordinator Ugo Priest), Louise Hamer (Misch), Benjamin Patterson (Lasar Opie), Will Hutchby (Kin Hodder), Michelle Ashton (Keten Webb), Phil Dennison (Grels, Medic), Leni Murphy (Betty/Executive/Nurse/Melamine). Writer: Ross Kelly, from the teleplay by Nigel KnealeDirectors: Ross Kelly and Daniel Thackeray. Producer: Gareth Kavanagh.

The Year of the Sex Olympics is the fourth production by Scytheplays, a Manchester-based theatrical group specializing in science fiction: previous productions have included Kevin Cuffe’s black comedy The Say Can Blues, an adaptation of Alan Moore‘s The Ballad of Halo Jones, and Together in Electric Dreamsan original comedy drama  about a the struggle between Sir Clive Sinclair and Alan Sugar for control of the British personal computing market (far more fun than it sounds!). It is based on Nigel Kneale‘s play of the same name, which was first broadcast in 1968 as part of BBC2‘s drama anthology series Theatre 625.

Watch, not do

Set in a hedonistic future owing much to the dystopian world of Aldous Huxley‘s Brave New World (1932), the play presents us with a society stratified between the brightener-popping ruling class ‘High Drives’ of Output Area 27 and a mass of ‘Low Drives’ kept passive on a diet of broadcast pornography. Kneale’s script calls it a ‘McLuhanised world’ (McLuhan‘s The Medium is the Massage, an immediate bestseller, was published a year earlier) in which television is used to ”massage” the sensorium, the seat of sensation, into passivity.

According to Kneale, his inspiration for the play came from two theatrical productions rather than television: the hippie musical Hair, which featured full frontal nudity, and Kenneth Tynan‘s bawdy theatrical review Oh! Calcutta!, to which Tynan had invited Kneale. He tied these public displays of permissiveness to popular ’60s concerns with overpopulation and civil unrest:

The Year of the Sex Olympics was a double comment. First of all it was a comment on television and the idea of a passive audience. At that time, the population was a very hot topic and it was also the time when Hair was on and people were saying ”lets put porn on stage”. So I put these ideas together and took them to their logical conclusion, using porn as a socially beneficial element that turns people into the ultimate passive audience by hooking them on a substitute for sex rather than the real thing and so keeping the population down.”

— Nigel Kneale, Interview with Julian Petley & Kim Newman

Nat Mender (Alastair Gillies, a great improvement on Tony Vogel in the TV version) is a television producer on the Sportsex channel, currently broadcasting The Sex Olympics. Nat is, in the words of Kneale’s script, ‘a decahedral peg in a nonahedral hole’; his fellow programmer, the ambitious Lasar Opie (Benjamin Patterson), fits in perfectly. The third member of their team is the shallow presenter Misch (Louise Hamer) with whom Nat is having a loveless sexual relationship. Misch speaks of the viewing audience with contempt but Hamer plays Misch’s insecurity well: her hatred springs from the knowledge that her fame and beauty are transitory.

Nat also has a daughter, Ketten (Michelle Ashton) with Deanie Webb (Claire Dean), both of whom who he clearly cares for, though he is unable to express this love in terms that sound anything other than selfish (Gillies struggles to articulate his feelings despite his impoverished language are among this production’s highlights). Deanie shows more compassion for her daughter – though she describes herself as ‘the mother’ not ‘her mother’. When Nat and Deanie visit their daughter at the Child Environment Centre where children are raised without their parents and it appears she has been diagnosed as Low-Drive Nat is angry:

NAT: It all goes on my record! And your record too! What about that!
For an instant Deanie hardly grasps his meaning. Then she is on her feet and at his shoulder, whispering fiercely:
DEANIE: Stop it! Think about her!

Coordinator Ugo Priest (Howard Whittock, stepping ably into the shoes of the great Leonard Rossiter) is old enough to remember the old times – or at least remember people who remember the old times – before Apathy Control. He retains an articulacy rare in this world but is a passionate advocate of apathy, expressed with the zealotry of the convert:

PRIEST: Yes. I am an old days man. The big break-through when they found the sheer power of watching. It took ’em a long time. Old days, they always said there were things you couldn’t show, things you mustn’t say. You ever hear the word ”pornography”? (Nat shakes his head). ”Censor”? (Nat shakes his head again) Ah. Meant a man that… Well, he’d have put a stop to all this. all of Sportsex, Artsex – the lot.
NAT (baffled): Why?
PRIEST: Stupidness…
He takes another brightener. Nat wonders obscurely if he is being got at.
NAT: Like… Like I stopped that kinky team in there?
PRIEST (shaking his head): A censor stopped things being taken too far. We stop ’em from not going far enough. (He sucks at the brightener) But then this breakthrough. They found that if they screened everything… and screened it real kingstyle… then basically the audience would make do with that. In place of the real thing. Take all the experience at second hand and just sit watching, calmly and quietly.
NAT: Watch, not do.
PRIEST: Watch, not do – that’s when it started. Of course they wondered if it would work. well it’s what we’ve got out there now. And we know it does. the vicarious society..
Nat, who has been sucking brighteners fast, stares.
NAT: Vic -victorious?
PRIEST: Vicarious. Means substitute. This-for-that.
Oh, this-for-that.
PRIEST: Sorry, Nat. Dropping into old-days words. With thinking about those times. (Kindly) There was such a word, ”victorious”. To do with war..
(more confidently): War was… a kind of tension.
Right. And riots, and crises. Too many people in the world. I remember the old slogan: ”Fight fire with fire, sex with sex!” They dosed it – (he waves his hand round them) – with this. Doused everything in the end. No more tensions, nothing. Just cool.

The Live Life Show

Priest recognises that the audience is growing bored with sex and tries to introduce programming that will tap another bodily response – laughter. But his crass attempts at introducing comedy programming – custard pie fights and other slapstick – fail to raise a smile despite his insistence that this is what the audience wants like a demented cross between Gaius Sempronius Gracchus, Joseph Goebbels, and TISWAS‘  Chris Tarrant.

When aspiring artist Kin Hodder (Will Hutchby) accidentally dies on air during a protest provoking howls of laughter from the audience, Lasar Opie conceives of The Live Life Show, a live Reality TV show featuring a family on a remote Scottish island. Nat and Deanie volunteer, and take their daughter with them, perhaps hoping to create their own Walden, well away from the stresses and obligations of Output. (Since Co-ordinator Priest seams such an apt name for a preacher for the faith apathy it perhaps isn’t stretching it too far to read Nat as Natural and Mender as Healer.) For the first few minutes of this second half of the play we experience some sense of hope even if the conditions Nat and his family are to live under are harsh: they are a family at last – and that’s where stories end happily isn’t it?

Thereafter, the play becomes increasingly dark as the upwardly mobile Opie begins to manipulate their lives further for the entertainment of the audience. The family are not alone on the island: there’s the mysterious Grels (Phil Dennison at his creepiest) and his sullen partner Betty (Leni Murphy, in one of four roles in this production). Even Priest is shocked as events unfold.

There is some effective use vignetting to switch between the island and the Output crew in the second half of the play. The Salmon Room is a small intimate venue and the production makes as much use of the space as possible. The sets consist of little more than a console at which the Output crew direct their programmes and monitor audience response and there are few props: this is a production that rests on the actor’s commitment to the script and the audience’s imagination. The audience is much more implicated in the drama than the TV version, as sitting at home it is much easier to pretend the diegetic audience represent someone else: here we are complicit in the actions onstage. We don’t have recourse to feeling smugly superior to an imagined audience.

Reduced Language

Language reduction is a major theme of the play; the reduced language, Ad Speak, is a notable constructed language, owing something to the Newspeak of George Orwell‘s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) – the difference being that while Newspeak was deliberately designed by a ruling oligarchy to prevent Party members from thinking unauthorised thoughts – committing ‘thoughtcrime‘ – the language of Sex Olympics has reduced itself naturally as words and concepts have become obsolete. Here, Nat struggles to articulate his thoughts about Will Hodder’s paintings:

NAT: Still not feel I got… the right words for it. They got to be somewhere. Where they go, Co-ordinator? Why they go, all those words?
People didn’t need ’em. They got out of having the thoughts so the words went too. 
Thoughts… (Slowly, making a discovery) Those pictures were thoughts!
That what they felt like. Old, old thoughts you had… Real jumbo thoughts you forgot you ever had ’em… until you saw!
Bad thoughts.
Why bad?
If they upset people.
Just the way they came out. You know, I can feel ’em now in my head. But I got no words for ’em.
They hurt?
Just the way they came out. You know, I can feel ’em now… in my head. I can think ’em. But I got no words for ’em.

There are no Thought Police in Kneale’s world as thoughts police themselves: the most chilling fact of Kneale’s dystopia is that it is one the populace have entered willingly. Yet Kneale is no linguistic determinist: Nat can feel his thoughts even if he cannot articulate them. He may be trapped in a prison-house of language but can see through the bars.

Adjectives and verbs are interchangeable in Ad-Speak (MISCH: They sick me too). The language is also slightly Russified like the Nadsat of Anthony Burgess‘ A Clockwork Orange (1962): Ad Speak largely omits definite and indefinite articles (”the”, ”a”, ”an”), a characteristic of Russian Grammar. There are fewer tenses, there are few cupulas to link the subject of a sentence with predicates, and word order is more flexible than English. Certain slang terms also  suggest a Slavic root (”bubbies’ from ”babushka”, for instance) and character names like Misch (derived from the man’s name Mikhail, but which has, like Nikita, been adopted as a woman’s name in the West) reinforce this impression. Kneale wasn’t suggesting that the UK had been invaded by the Soviet Union though, any more than Burgess was; more that nation states have lost all definition in a media saturated world. To use another ”McLuhanism” we are all part of the same ”Global Village”. (In the TV version the cast adopt a distinctly transatlantic accent). The cumulative effect is that Ad Speak sounds like it has been imperfectly translated from a language which has no native speakers. The cast, veterans of The Ballad of Halo Jones, are experienced enough with futuristic sociolects to make it sound natural.

Nigel Kneale… Prophet?

Most of the reviews have been along the lines of Nigel Kneale: Prophet but Science fiction isn’t prophecy and shouldn’t be judged as such – though there’s an almost irresistible temptation to discuss the play with reference to the ways in which it accurately anticipates some developments in television – in particular Reality TV shows like Survivor (1992 – Present) and Big Brother (1999- Present). Reality TV actually dates back as far as Candid Camera in 1948, and the Up Series had begun broadcasting with Seven Up! in 1964, so Kneale is deconstructing contemporary ’60s television here rather than predicting future developments. Correspondences between the play and contemporary reality are largely due to our ability to create signal from noise, and are a fine example of the Texas Sharpshooter fallacy.

The play is as interesting for what it ‘got wrong’ as what it ‘got right’. Science fiction isn’t about prophesy, and Kneale wasn’t ‘predicting’ the future, so when I use the phrase ‘got things wrong’ I’m not really suggesting Kneale was actually trying to predict the future – still less that his play should be judged accordingly; I would argue that science fiction attempts to do something different, and should be judged as an expression of the present rather than an experiment in futurology. One subtle and interesting way that The Year of the Sex Olympics is ‘correct’ is the way it shows that ‘Reality’ TV is actually constructed, not simply broadcast: Opie manipulates the events on the island, and is selective in what he broadcasts – denying the audience information about what caused Ketten’s fall, for instance, in order to increase suspense.

There’s a lot of sex and violence on television these days – but it’s largely restricted to imports from subscription channels like HBO and Showtime. There’s an awful lot less sex on mainstream TV than the 70s, and very little nudity: compare Russell T Davies‘ almost chaste Casanova (2005) with Dennis Potter‘s raunchier 1971 version, or the feeble Bouquet of Barbed Wire remake (2010) with the 1976 original; compare the casual nudity of Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1969-1974), Not the Nine O’Clock News (1979-1982), Whoops Apocalypse (1982) or Hot Metal (1986-1989) with their ‘daring’ equivalents today. No ’70s cop show was complete without a shot of this week’s celebrity guest-shag getting out of the hero’s bed and buttoning up her blouse, or a raid on a strip joint. For a short while in the US it was even possible to discuss watching hardcore movies like Deep Throat (1972) or The Devil in Miss Jones (1973) in polite company: celebrities including Martin ScorseseBrian de PalmaTruman CapoteJack Nicholson and Johnny Carson have admitted having seen the former. The New York Times Magazine even coined the term ”porno chic” – but the mainstreaming of pornography did not long outlast the decade.

What Kneale didn’t foresee was the combination of feminism and a conservative backlash which made nudity – largely synonymous with female nudity – less acceptable on UK TV. People talk about sex more on TV, there’s much more strong language, and homosexual themes are more openly represented, but this has largely been a pragmatic consequence of the campaign against AIDS that began in the Eighties rather than an a result of the ‘permissive society’ or a ‘loosening’ of morals. There’s some hardcore content in movies these days, of course, even in the UK, beginning with Lars von Trier‘s The Idiots (1998), and continuing with  Catherine Breillat‘s Romance (1999), Baise-Moi (2000), Intimacy (2001), Vincent Gallo‘s The Brown Bunny (2003) and Michael Winterbottom‘s 9 Songs (2004), Shortbus (2006), Destricted (2006) and Trier’s Antichrist (2009) – but those are independent art house movies, often subtitled, consumed by a more middle-classes audience – the High-Drives of Kneale’s play – rather than the working-class Low-Drives. There’s also a quite a bit of simulated sex on subscription channels (Hung2009- Present, Game of Thrones2011- Present) but the audience figures for those are small compared with mainstream terrestrial television or subscription sports channels.

The consumption of pornography on the internet is still something looked upon as a dubious activity no matter how many people do it, and it is not regarded as socially acceptable as watching the latest Lars Von Trier movie. The so-called ‘adult channels‘ available in the UK are also heavily censored. The First Amendment guarantees the freedom to produce and distribute pornography in the USA but it remains a religious and conservative country; Janet Jackson‘s accidental ‘wardrobe malfunction‘ during  Super Bowl XXXVIII provoked a level of public outrage  not seen since 9/11 and led to an immediate crackdown on perceived ‘indecency’ in broadcasting. Explicit pornography has not become mainstream.

Nigel Kneale… Artist?

Kneale’s view of the audience as passive and sadistic is also too pessimistic. If anything, Kneale fails to appreciate how overly moralistic the public are. When audiences heard that Celebrity Big Brother 2007 contestant – and ultimately winner – Shilpa Shetty was the subject to racist comments by the other contestants, Jade Goody became the most hated woman in Great Britain since Myra Hindley: the controversy generated over 300 newspaper articles in Britain, 1,200 in English language newspapers around the globe, 3,900 foreign language news articles, and 22,000 blog postings on the internet. Jan Moir‘s comments following the the death of Boyzone singer Stephen Gately in 2009 earned her widespread vilification and the Stonewall Bigot of the Year Award (jointly with Father John Owen), and Jeremy Clarkeson‘s joke at the expense of BBC ‘impartiality’ lead to an equally strong reaction from the PCS. People don’t enjoy watching other people suffer unless they believe they have done something to deserve it – and the play gives the diegetic audience no reason to hate the protagonists. Suffering produces sympathy, not shadenfreude; the Ethiopian famine provoked Live Aid, not laughter.

Kneale was a perceptive critic of television as well as a great writer – but he was as vulnerable to moral panics as anyone else, and like many great writers TV writers (Paddy Cheyefsky, Dennis PotterAaron Sorkin) takes television at it’s self-flagellatingly low estimation of its own worth. Too much emphasis on ”Nigel Kneale: Prophet” has undervalued his true worth as ”Nigel Kneale: Artist”.

Kneale had an extraordinary imagination and a flair for conveying a fictional world through language alone that transcended his chosen medium. Until recently TV has been regarded as a disposable medium compared with literature or film; the BFI DVD release is out of print and expensive. Don’t miss this rare chance to see an excellent production one of Kneale’s finest works.

Future Performances:
Also check out:
Read More:
  • Blumenthal, Ralph (1973) ”Porno chic; “Hard-core” grows fashionable-and very profitable”, The New York Times Magazine, 21 January 1973
  • Burgess, Anthony (1962) A Clockwork Orange
  • Danthackeray (Dan’s blog)
  • EvansRobert O. (1971) ”Nadsat: The Argot and Its Implications in Anthony Burgess’A Clockwork Orange (pdf) in Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 1, No. 3 (Mar., 1971), pp. 406-410
  • The Fiction Stroker (2012) The Year of the Sex Olympics – LIVE!” (Review)
  • Huxley, Aldous (1932) Brave New World
  • Jameson, Fredric (1972) The Prison-House of Language: A Critical Account of Structuralism and Russian Formalism
  • Kneale, Nigel (1968) The Year of the Sex Olympics – The Screenplay (pdf extra on the BFI DVD release)
  • Lowe, Tracey (2012) ”Greater Manchester Fringe: The Year of the Sex Olympics – Lass O’Gowrie, Manchester” at The Public Reviews (Review)
  • McLuhan, Marshall (1964) Understanding Media
  • (1967) The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects
  • Murray, Andy (2006) Into the Unknown: The Fantastic Life of Nigel Kneale
  • Orwell, George (1949) Nineteen Eighty-Four
  • Petley, Julian & Kim Newman (undated) ”Interview with Nigel Kneale”, Video Watchdog No. 47
  • Newman, Kim (2003) Sleeve notes to the BFI DVD release.
  • Scytheplays (Homepage)
  • Thoreau, Henry David (1854) Walden; or, a Life in the Woods

Picturehouse at FACT, Liverpool, 3 July

Just a quick note to remind people that Hammer film’s Quatermass and the Pit, an adaptation of Nigel Kneale‘s six part BBC Television seriel, is on a limited re-release for today only, and is playing at Liverpool’s Picturehouse at FACT.

The film stars Andrew Keir as Prof. Bernard QuatermassJames Donald as paleontologist Dr Matthew Roney, Barbara Shelley as Roney’s assistant, Barbara Judd, and the fabulous Julian Glover as Colonel Breen, and is directed by Roy Ward Baker. The music is by Tristram Cary.

This is a good month to be a Nigel Kneale fan in the North West, with an adaptation of Kneale’s Year of the Sex Olympics due to be performaed at the Lass O’Gowrie, Manchester, on 13 July as part of the Greater Manchester Fringe Festival.